Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Ecco, 2017. 9780062450340. 352 pp.
Gene: I read Wilson’s The Family Fang and I loved it. It’s also about an unusual family.
Sarah: I hadn’t heard of it. Then I mentioned this book to Tom and he said they’d made a movie out of The Family Fang.
S: It came out in 2016. It has Jason Bateman in it.
G: (Adding it to his watchlist) It’s about a family that does public performance art pieces that people don’t know are performance art, some of which involve their kids. Very funny. You should read it. And that made me want to read this, not even knowing what it was about.
S: I wanted to introduce this by saying that when I was in elementary school and we had reading time in our class, we had to read stories from a big stupid textbook. It had stories and parts of books, but not the good parts. And one of the comprehension questions was always: “Why do you think the author wrote this story?” We were clueless kids. “To get paid!” I think it was an easy way to ask us about the theme of a book. (Now, as an adult, I’m like, it wasn’t to get paid.)
That was on my mind when I was reading this because I wasn’t sure what the theme was until I was most of the way through. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure what it was about.
G: There were moments in the middle where I was really enjoying it and I didn’t feel like there was a huge conflict. I just liked Izzy so much.
S: So, the premise.
G: Izzy is a very smart high school girl who is not planning on going to college or doing much with her life — she has an alcoholic father and her mother is dead — she falls in love with her high school art teacher, an older dude. They have an affair during her senior year, she gets pregnant, and then he kills himself. His family is well off.
S: And in politics, and they’re worried about a scandal.
G: They offer her some money, not quite hush money because she’s not making threats, but she takes it. And they also offer to introduce her to…
S: They pay for her prenatal care and get her the best OB GYN in the state, though he turns out to be a complete asshole.
G: He’s the worst.
S: And they help get her into a child development study that will provide for her and her kid, and might give her a chance to get some schooling.
G: She’s working at a barbecue place…
S: She started as a waitress but now she’s pulling pigs apart.
G: With the old dude.
S: Mr. Turnbull.
G: They’re in the smokehouse mopping the carcasses down with actual mops, pulling the meat off the bones.
S: I was hungry throughout this whole book.
G: She develops such a nice relationship with him, and he’s such a good guy to her.
S: Doesn’t know what to make of her at all.
G: But they become very close in a very quiet way.
She applies to this study and is accepted. She’s the only single mom.
S: It’s 10 newborn kids and their parent(s).
G: Plus Dr. Grind and a few researchers. He’s trying to make a big group family, financed by a lady who owns something like Walmart.
S: His theory is that we all want to do the best for our kids, but we all feel like we’re total failures because it’s impossible to do this by yourself.
G: So all the parents work at it together with professionals in a way he prescribes. And he was raised in an absolutely insane way —
S: Oh my god!
G: — where his parents tortured him, because their idea of being good parents was putting him in difficult and stressful situations. There are insane flashbacks. It all made him emotionally unavailable. And it becomes clear that through the project he’s trying to design the family that he wants, and to be a part of it.
The project not only provides for the kids and helps them develop, it also provides for the parents and helps them become who they want to be.
S: Which gets into my problem: I enjoy utopian novels, but they don’t have a lot going on.
G: There is some conflict with the parents, tension about what’s going to happen with the project and its funding, will it all turn out okay… it’s so hard to talk about without giving away too much.
S: Why do you think the author wrote this book?
G: I don’t know.
S: And maybe more important is that the book alternates voices between Izzy and Dr. Grind, and both of them were damaged in particular ways. They are so so good but damaged. Izzy talks about how before she was in the project she avoided disappointment by not expecting anything. She assumed people were going to let her down.
G: Right. Her relationship with her father…
To me the book speaks to my experience, which is you get to pick your family, or to make one. So keep an eye out. You’re not stuck with assholes. (And I’m not saying everyone in my family is an asshole.)
S: I felt so affectionate to Izzy — there are people like her, you meet them and you’re like, oh, you are in a bad situation, something happened that wasn’t up to you, and now you’re dealing with the fallout — and you want to gather them up and put them into a perfect little world where they don’t have to worry. When Izzy worries about whether or not she should be part of the project, she realizes if she doesn’t join she’d have to take two jobs, have to live with her dad in her tiny room, would have no energy for anything, would start to resent her son because he was the reason for all this — and she realized she had no choice. She had to do this.
G: And you think it was a good choice?
G: But the thing they can’t remove from the project is that people are going to be shitty to each other in unexpected ways.
I really liked this book, but it feels really atypical, like it’s not the kind of book I usually enjoy.
S: I was reading it in the lobby of my dentist’s office and the hygienist asked me what I was reading. I told her what it was, and that it was about these families that raise their kids as one family, and how that works and doesn’t work.
G: Good pitch. I think my wife Silver will love it, and I bet I can get her to read it.
S: It’s going on the shelf right next to George & Lizzie, because it’s also about parental psychological experimentation on a child and dealing with the aftermath and how do you go forward in life after that kind of trauma.